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The Witches of the Orient

Updated on August 12, 2015

The Olympics serve as an opportunity for both a chance for individual athletes to showcase their talents and prove that they are among the world’s elite. It is one of the greatest showcases of talent and hard work in the world. These are the world’s best going head to head, each looking for a shot at glory on one of the biggest stages. Of course this is also the time for the host country to showcase its own greatness. Whether it is through the opening ceremony, or through the city itself, the host country always seeks to impress the rest of the world. Of course the same could also be said for the national teams and athletes of the host country. Being able to compete for the Olympics is special, but being able to compete in your home country for the Olympics is something else entirely. Statistically speaking host countries tend to gain more gold medals than they normally would. Maybe we can attribute this to judges being kinder or maybe it’s due to some sort of super patriotism boost, or perhaps this is due to the Olympic version of home court (or ice, or field) advantage. Either way this goes to show that playing for your home country, while already exciting, becomes more thrilling when doing it in front of a home crowd. If you want an example you needn’t look any further than what the Japanese women’s volleyball team accomplished in the summer of 1964.

Opening Ceremonies at the 1964 Summer Olympic Games
Opening Ceremonies at the 1964 Summer Olympic Games | Source

The 1964 Summer Olympics were seen as Japan’s return to the world stage. The past twenty years had seen the country recovering from the devastation of WWII. The country had been almost completely devastated by the war and had struggled to rebuild itself. Everything from the presentation of the icty to the opening ceremonies were planned by the Japanese government to be a coming of age ceremony for the nation. The 1964 Olympics were supposed to showcase the grandeur and wonder of Tokyo and Japan as a whole. The Japanese government wanted Tokyo to be seen as a pleasant and wonderful place, but as a city of the future. Thus the Shinkansen, or bullet train was planned to be constructed at around the same time as the Tokyo Olympics. The builders of the Shinkansen were not able to complete this lofty goal, but nonetheless it shows how serious the government approached the games. However this was also seen as a time to restore the country’s damaged national pride. This is where the 1964 women’s volleyball stepped in. At the time it was thought that the Japanese women’s wouldn’t be able to beat other teams due to their slight stature. However due to their training regimen they were able to beat teams that were taller and stronger opponents initially favored to beat them. The so called Witches of the Orient came to represent the Japanese work ethic and the fortitude that had been exemplified in the post WWII era.

Yuriko Hanada, one of the members of the 1964 Championship team
Yuriko Hanada, one of the members of the 1964 Championship team | Source

Unfortunately for the members of the national team they had to earn that reputation of being hard working and a team that exemplified fortitude. The coach at the time trained the players by putting them through what eventually became known as satsujin taiso or homicidal training. Of course this gives you an idea as to what type of practices the team usually ran under head coach Hirobumi Daimatsu. Often the players were run into the ground and brought to tears during practice. Given that Daimatsu was an ex military officer in the Japanese army, I doubt the Japanese players expected anything that even resembled sympathy. So even when the players began breaking down and crying Daimatsu’s only response was to tell them to get up. The idea behind the satsujin taiso was to create a team full of tough minded and physically fit team. Daimatsu believed that the only way the smaller Japanese team would be able to keep up with the taller teams was to outwork them. Daimatsu believed his brand of practices would instill a sense of mental toughness and physical endurance in his squad. All outward appearances would suggest that his strategy worked. The Japanese squad dominated every opponent they were matched up with starting with 1960 Volleyball World Championships. Although the Japanese national team was not expected to do well, the team wound up taking home the silver medal. The team was considered the favorites after beating the Soviet Union during the World Championships. It was during this match the team was given the name the Witches of the Orient. The Russian media gave them this name as a reference to the “magical” play of the team. Thus the Japanese national team waltzed into the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo as the prohibitive favorites to win the gold medal. The Japanese national team beat the Russians in the final match to secure the gold medal win. The victory combined with the successful hosting of the Olympic Games that year signified the return of Japan to the world stage.

Japan’s victory over the Russian national team during the 1964 Olympics provided a boost in national pride at a time when the nation was rebuilding from the damage of WWII. The Witches of the Orient gave Japan a national symbol that had been lacking in post war Japan and in many ways was instrumental to restoring Japanese national pride. The team was viewed as being representative of Japanese national fortitude, in line with the theme the Japanese government wanted to promote in 1964. Given the brutal training regimen the women were put through as well as the fact the team had taken home the gold through hard work and determination.

Sata Isobe, another member of the 1964 gold medal team
Sata Isobe, another member of the 1964 gold medal team | Source

Thus the team was adopted by the country to be the ultimate symbol to the rest of the world as the perfect example of the fortitude and strength of the Japanese people. The Witches of the Orient became an example of the traits that had brought Japan back to global power. Upon closer examination the team is also an example of some of the inner workings modern Japanese national identity and society. First the team represented the hidden ways in which Japan was able to repurpose the role of the military in nationalism. As you might remember Daimatsu was ex military and used military methods to drill his players. In a lot of ways this is demonstrative of how closely the military and government were involved in the Olympics. The Emperor was present at the opening ceremonies as were civil defense force planes. Both of these symbols were highly controversial, not just abroad, but domestically as well. The other important factor in all this is that Daimatsu and the Emperor were symbols of the old regime, which was supposed to be abolished. This was representative of the role WWII played in the recreation of national icons for Japan. Although the Witches of the Orient stood out as their own, behind that was the strong arm of the old WWII regime. Look at the national flag of Japan and the anthem of Japan. The flag is based on the old WWII war flag and the anthem, Kimigayo is a song singing praises to the emperor. In many ways the national icons of the Japan that are used today have their origins in WWII.

A second way in which the team was representative of trends in Japanese society. The captain of the team, Masae Kasai, publicly expressed regret at not being able to marry as a result of her dedication to the team. After expressing her sorrow to the emperor, he immediately set her up with a respected military officer. Like many modern Japanese women, Masae would marry at the age of 30. Also in line with many Japanese women she only married after she was done with her career, in this case professional volleyball. Due to the strain of married life many women in Japan have put off getting married until later in life in order to have a career before marrying. Once married women typically become the ones who take care of any and all household affairs. As a result it is unappealing to both marry and have a job. The result of this tradeoff is women, such as Masae Kasai, working until they are 30 years old in order to have a career before marrying. That is assuming women even want to marry. Many women in Japan are no longer interested in marrying due to the high amount of stress and responsibility that come with it. While this trend has taken place over the course of thirty years since the Witches of the Orient took their medal, Masae’s decision served as foreshadowing of things to come in Japan.

The Witches of the Orient came to represent every attribute we associate with Japan from a near militant work ethic to the idea of working as a singular unit. However the 1964 women’s volleyball team has also become an example of some of the inner workings of Japanese society and national identity. From the creation of the so-called Japanese work ethic, to the close ties of Japanese national pride with the military, it can all be seen in the saga of the Witches of the Orient.

Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium, the site of the Witches of the Orient's final victory over the USSR
Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium, the site of the Witches of the Orient's final victory over the USSR | Source

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